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September 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 1

What Middle Schoolers Say About What Schoolwork

As educators, we invoke the best thinking to enrich the educational experiences of our students. The most direct lessons, however, often come from what kids themselves say about school.
As a preliminary step in designing an Interdisciplinary Portfolio Project, educators at Campus Middle School in Englewood, Colorado, surveyed 7th and 8th grade students about their most memorable work. In order for portfolio selections to have credibility, they believed that students should tell us what represents their “best work.” Taken a step further, students' selections would also be the work that, to them, was the most engaging.

Reading Between the Lines

In administering the survey, we gave the students no prompts nor any limitations other than to cite their most memorable work in school and tell why. Even with such an open-ended structure, their responses formed clear patterns (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. 7th and 8th Graders Rate Their “Most Memorable Work in School”

What Middle Schoolers Say About What Schoolwork - table

What Middle Schoolers Say About What Schoolwork

Number of Responses


Hands-on science5327%
Independent research projects3618%
Performing/giving speeches3317%
Research on foreign cultures1910%
Field Trips189%
Art projects158%
Writing to important people105%
Writing stories63%
Spring 1992, N=200
One of the most decisive responses related to science: of the 200 students surveyed, 27 percent indicated that hands-on science was their most memorable work. Activities such as dissecting owl pellets or watching mold grow captured their votes across the board and from both sexes equally. Teachers were surprised that 28 percent of the students cited work that involved independent research on a variety of topics, including banking systems and currency as well as investigation of foreign cultures. Students described these projects as fun, even though they took more time and effort than one-shot tasks. Again and again, students cited stand-up performances such as school plays, skits, and speeches—in short, activities in which they were directly involved in learning.
While the favorites really are not surprising, we should be concerned about the work that students did not mention. They rarely cited reading a special book as memorable, for example. Only 8 percent identified writing as a memorable activity; of those students, most said they enjoyed writing to a sports figure or other important person because they had received answers to their letters. The others said they loved writing because they had earned special recognition or were in the gifted and talented program. Another serious omission: only 3 students in 200 cited mathematics as memorable.
Obviously, we have to ask why the basics are not popular with students. If we conclude that they consider the work too difficult, we have not studied all of their cues. In fact, students' choices of schoolwork provide but one level of awareness; more enlightening were the reasons they gave for those choices. For example: I spent 12 hours on it, but it was the most fun project I ever did; also I did well on it.It was really hard, but I learned a lot.I never worked so hard, but it was worth it.
Again and again, students equated hard work with success and satisfaction. Moreover, they suggested that challenge is the essence of engagement; when students feel they are doing important work, they are more likely to buy in than not. So difficulty does not explain the absence of the three Rs in their selections of memorable work. More likely, skill-and-drill learning without the challenge of realistic applications is the turnoff. It is not the instant success but the challenge and victory that give students a sense of power.
With equal candor students decried tasks that they considered memorable for their uselessness: “I did a project on cholesterol. I didn't like it because it was boring. I don't even remember anything I learned.” About a science notebook, one student said, “It was memorable because of how pointless but painful it was. I didn't even learn much in all 75 pages I ended up writing!” In short, students recognize and despise busywork.

Authentic Learning Experiences

Although some students had earned A's or an equivalent for their memorable work, surprisingly they mentioned grades as an afterthought, not as justification for the effort. A typical example is this student's comment about an oral presentation: “I was so nervous, and everyone was staring at me ... but I kept talking and got a 100!”
The current research in cognitive psychology corroborates students' responses. Researchers (Resnick and Klopfer 1989) are urging educators to offer learning experiences beyond what Whitehead (1929), decades ago, referred to as “inert knowledge.” Rather, students need opportunities to apply knowledge, to generate and construct meaning, the kind of cognition that combines declarative and procedural knowledge (Anderson 1982, 1987). Declarative knowledge, in essence, is the what, while procedural is the how.
For example, a problem-centered curriculum generates an environment in which students learn as they create their own solutions to relevant, open-ended problems. The science laboratory and independent research projects, as noted by the students we surveyed, exemplify opportunities for problem-centered learning but by no means exhaust the possibilities.
Perhaps we could generate more engagement in the basics— reading, writing, and mathematics—by integrating them into the high-interest content areas. Students should be using mathematical strategies in science, they should be writing to communicate the results of their experiments, and so on. As a matter of fact, no students in the survey complained about writing research projects. In other words, using the three Rs as a means to an end seems natural and appropriate to these middle school students.
The research implies, among other things, the need to structure schoolwork around some very simple logic. Students crave hands-on work across content areas, and, even better, they love to pursue their own areas of interest. Their most memorable work caused kids to feel good about themselves. Impossible to miss were phrases like, “I felt proud” and “I got pats on the back.” We need not withhold challenge from students because we fear giving them hard work. But we also must keep our sights on the literacy target—not creating a cakewalk for students in the name of engagement, but offering instructionally important tasks with no frills, no fat, just high nutrition.

A Fragile Matter

The results of this survey led teachers at Campus Middle School to explore different approaches to the work they were asking students to do. In the early stages of a 6th grade pilot portfolio project, teachers learned some additional lessons about engagement. The purpose of the project was to improve performance by having students become more actively involved in the learning process. The pilot involved six 6th grade teachers and approximately 150 students.
Using a teacher-designed rubric, 6th graders selected the pieces they thought represented their best work in three content areas: language arts, mathematics, and science. The pieces that showed up in their portfolios, however, were not at all the kinds of work that students in our survey cited as memorable. Instead, their choices tended to be work they thought the teachers valued—for example, they selected one-step, drill-and-practice pieces such as spelling tests that earned an A, or homework papers in mathematics that were evaluated as 100 percent correct.
In other words, students taught us that engagement is connected to locus of control. When students knew their selections were to be used to validate performance in the various disciplines, they invoked a different set of standards. This phenomenon suggests two explanations. First, students were making selections from assigned work; if they had not been given opportunities to do the more complex kinds of projects, obviously their field of selections was severely narrowed. To address these findings, Campus Middle School teachers began to offer a richer spectrum of experiences for students and coached them more carefully about the criteria for best work.
But the second issue strikes at a phenomenon not so easily reversed. Namely, students internalize success or failure on the basis of a teacher's appraisal. To compound the dilemma, the student may not always understand the teacher's appraisal or the criteria for success. So many times students say, “I can't believe I got an A on this. I hardly spent any time on it. The paper I broke my back over got a C.” For the student, this confusion creates a sense of disengagement within the learning environment, a loss of control. Students who sense that they cannot please the teacher may prefer to sit on the bench or leave the game indefinitely. Engagement is indeed fragile.

Reflection on Learning Is Key

Projects such as the Campus Middle School Interdisciplinary Portfolio are founded on the merits of student ownership and self-assessment. A key aspect of that process is the continuous self-reflection of students as they make selections for their portfolios. For each portfolio selection, students answer a series of questions, including: What steps did you take in completing this assignment? What was the hardest part of this activity? What did you learn from completing this assignment?
Knowing one's strengths, weaknesses, needs, and abilities empowers a student to rely on an internal locus of control. Likewise, the ability to articulate thinking processes helps eliminate trial-and-error approaches to problem solving. Sternberg has classified metacognition as one of the three components of intelligence (1985). In other words, the ability to self-monitor and self-regulate is as important as knowledge acquisition and thinking skills such as organizing, analyzing, and inferring.
During a three-year pilot, the Campus Middle School teachers have revised parts of their portfolio, but not the self-reflection component. As their students moved through the year, teachers observed growth in students' ability to analyze and articulate their own thinking. These pilot years have shown that self-reflection, like any other skill, requires teaching, modeling, nurturing, and feedback.

More Than Meets the Eye

  1. Students of different abilities and backgrounds crave doing important work. All students benefit from opportunities to explore ideas for their own sake, and all students need to see the link between routine drill-and-practice and more complex work.
  2. Passive learning is not engaging. For students to sense that their work is important, they need to tinker with real-world problems, and they need opportunities to construct knowledge.
  3. Hard work does not turn students away, but busywork destroys them. Though all students must learn the basics in order to move forward, the basics should not be an end in themselves but a means to an end.
  4. Every student deserves the opportunity to be reflective and self-monitoring. Teachers can nurture a strong self-image by allowing students to develop an internal locus of control, aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
  5. Self-esteem is enhanced when we accomplish something we thought impossible, something beyond us.
A final word about engagement. In studying the definitions, I noticed that even the word itself is more complex than meets the eye. On the one hand, engagement is the result of acting upon an object in some way, of gaining a promise or commitment, of holding, employing, and—as one dictionary suggested—of “keeping busy.” The intransitive aspect implies responding by making a commitment, involving oneself, being active.
For educators, the dichotomy is like striking gold in understanding the relationship of teacher to student, student to learning. We can never assume that a classroom of “busy” students guarantees that they are engaged. We have to ask what it is that they are doing. How important is the work? Are they truly committed, involved, and active?
Kids will do the busywork—if we ask them to—and probably never complain; but doing it does not ensure engagement. Finally, we must remember that students trust their teachers. If we occupy them with trivial work, we have violated that trust.

Anderson, J. R. (1982). “Acquisition of Cognitive Skill.” Psychological Review 89: 369–406.

Anderson, J. R. (1987). “Skill Acquisition: Compilation of Weak-Method Problem Solutions.” Psychological Review 94: 192–210.

Resnick, L. B., and L. E. Klopfer. (1989). “Toward the Thinking Curriculum: An Overview.” In Toward the Thinking Curriculum: Current Cognitive Research, 1989 ASCD Yearbook, edited by L. B. Resnick and L. E. Klopfer, pp. 1–18. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). “Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Intelligence.” In Handbook of Human Intelligence, edited by R. J. Sternberg. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The Aims of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Paulette Wasserstein has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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